I first met CJ Lyons on two Yahoo email lists: Crime Writers and Sisters in Crime. Soon after I discovered that she would be one of the presenters at the OWFI (Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc. http://owfi.org) writing conference May 1-2, 2008.
Not only did I attend CJ's sessions and have her autograph my copy of her debut medical thriller LIFELINES, but she also joined me at my writing group's table at both banquets.
When I heard about her new novel being released this month, and which I have pre-ordered, I asked her if I could interview her. She agreed, and the following is the result.
Vivian: How did/does your history and home background affect your writing?
CJ: My mom was a voracious reader, so I grew up surrounded by books. I began reading at a very early age and skipped the whole "see Dick run" stage, going right to books like Agatha Christie.
And fairy tales—lots of fairy tales. But not the sanitized Disney version, my mom had lots of the "real" ones—Perraults, Grimm Brothers, etc. I think they helped me to learn the value of a good story, how the hero's journey works on a subliminal level, and also that no happy ending comes without paying a price. Vivian: Tell us something about your background that has made you a better, or more caring, writer.
CJ: Being a pediatrician definitely has given me insight into how real heroes are born. Watching children and their families respond to tragedy and triumph has both inspired and humbled me.
Since I spent a lot of my career working in urban trauma centers and as a victim's advocate, I also witnessed occasions of true evil—and saw how insidious it is, how easily it can hide in plain sight. And I saw how so many of us live our lives in a gray area between good and evil.
That's the reality of our world. In my fictional world, I try to address this cosmic ambiguity, with many of my characters doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons—or all the wrong things for all the right reasons. I love stories of redemption, of triumph over one's own self.
Vivian: Please fill us in on your hobbies, interests, or activities you participate in during your leisure time. *laugh* If you have any.
CJ: Great question — strange to say, but I used to have a lot more free time when I was practicing medicine! Now that I write full time, it seems that almost everything is tied to the writing. Either getting the current book done, researching the next, or marketing the one hitting the stores now.
But that's all good!. When you do something you love, it doesn't seem like work. And I've been able to expand my writing career to include a busy teaching schedule. Now I get to combine my love of travel with trips to give master classes, workshops and keynotes. This way I'm always meeting new people who share my love of storytelling! Vivian: Authors are often asked when they started writing or what triggered their interest in writing. I like to know that, also, but I would especially like to know what keeps you writing.
CJ: I've been telling stories all my life—took me a looooong time to figure out the difference between fiction and reality when I was a kid. This led to many hours in time out—which led to more stories fermenting in my imagination…..a vicious cycle.
I honestly don't think I could stop writing if I tried. It's an addiction for me. There are so many stories to tell and so little time. Vivian: You have so many projects going all the time: working on books, traveling, etc.; how do you manage?
CJ: I'm a lousy housekeeper. Seriously, you should see my place—my Christmas gift to myself was investing in a Dirt Dog robot vacuum cleaner so at least the floors would get done. Now, if I could just teach it to dust and do the laundry….
Vivian: What is your most recent book, and what inspired you to write it?
CJ: WARNING SIGNS is due out on January 27th. It's a coming of age tale, featuring a medical student who is investigating a mysterious illness killing her patients. Then she begins to exhibit the same deadly symptoms herself….
I was inspired by my own experiences as a student. None of us were immune from "medicalstudentitis"—a form of hypochondriasis brought on by exposure to arcane knowledge about rare and mysterious ailments.
I swear at one point we all thought we had Leishmaniasis, Q-fever, Kawasaki's, and Sjorgens—simultaneously! Working 100+ hours a week, plus non-stop studying, poor diet, no sleep, no exercise all combined to produce in us symptoms that we were sure were deadly….only to be reassured by our patient clinical instructors that we would indeed live until tomorrow.
Of course things are never so easy in the fictional world of Angels of Mercy Medical Center and my medical student has something a lot more devastating to face.
Vivian: How did you manage to come up with the idea for your medical thrillers? What would you care to share about any of your books?
CJ: Most of my ideas come from things that frustrate me and that I want to change. Topics that I feel passionate about.
LIFELINES was inspired by a photo I once saw. In it, there was an old man wearing a VFW uniform with a lot of medals and decorations. He was holding a sign that read: Freedom includes the right to hate.
I was caught by the ambiguity—here was a man who had shed blood to protect me and my country, who had earned my respect, yet he was espousing an idea that I despised. That it was okay to "hate" someone because we live in a free society.
Then I read about the ACLU defending the KKK's right to protest during a rally. And I knew that I would use all of these conflicting ideas in a book someday. That book became LIFELINES.
As I said, my second book, WARNING SIGNS, was inspired by my days as a medical student as well as a lot of recent high profile medical stories including the melamine contamination. I kept wondering, how does anyone know if what they eat or drink, the air they breathe, the medicine they're prescribed, if any of it really is safe?
The manuscript I just finished, URGENT CARE, goes in a different direction than the first two books in the series. LIFELINES was more pure thriller, WARNING SIGNS more of a mystery.
But Book 3, URGENT CARE (due out in November) is psychological suspense. It's about facing the truth of your past, learning how to trust again. In it, Nora, the ER's charge nurse, deals with her past as a survivor of a sexual assault.
While writing it I was very cognizant of the fact that this is an uncomfortable subject for many. But I also wanted to be as honest as possible, to illuminate the courage I've seen in victims—and how an assault changes their lives. I can only hope that I did their stories justice and that URGENT CARE will help to inspire and empower readers.
Vivian: Do you have a particular writing process or technique that you use, if so, what?
CJ: Nope. After seventeen years of medicine, following a strict schedule, I totally wing-it now. I have my deadlines and they keep me in check, but I don't write every day or have a set word count or the like. I also don't write in chronological order—which drives my friends who outline and plot crazy.
My only rule is: No rules, just write!
Vivian: How do you feel when you complete a book?
CJ: When I finish the rough draft, first there's this sigh of relief, wow, I did get it done.
Immediately followed by a thrill of elation—Wow! I got it done!
Two seconds later that's followed by: Wow! I have a ton of work to do—this thing stinks!
But, when I finish the final draft (revisions from my editor, page proofs, etc) and it's gone to press and I can't do anything more with it, then I just kind of let it go….like releasing a baby bird and seeing if it will fly.
The readers will decide its fate—all I can do is get to work on the next book and try my best to make it better. Vivian: What are your writing achievements and goals?
CJ: Achievements? I won a few contests before I was published, LIFELINES has been graced with many wonderful reviews, including a Top Pick from Romantic Times, and good reviews in Publishers Weekly, Newsday, the Baltimore Sun, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, among others.
But I consider my greatest achievement to be the fact that I had the courage to take the leap of faith to write full time. So far I'm supporting myself on my writing and hopefully will continue to do so!
As for goals—while hitting a list would be nice, writers really don't have a lot of control over that. My main goal is to continue to tell stories that readers love and to inspire, entertain, and empower. If I do that well enough, readers will spread the word and more readers will come…..
Vivian: How do any writing groups benefit you and your writing? Also, we might tie some information about your presentations at conferences with this. CJ: As much as we love the idea of the lone poet scribbling in his garret, writing today is anything but an individual effort. Yes, it's your idea and your vision, how you make it come to life is unique.
But once you entertain the idea of publishing you're entering a whole new world—a very strange one, I may add, one that it is best not to navigate alone.
That's where the help of fellow writers is invaluable—the writers' groups I'm involved with have offered me invaluable support, motivation, inspiration, knowledge, and guidance. They include the Motivated Writers' Life, Sisters in Crime, PASIC (the published author chapter of RWA), and International Thriller Writers, among others.
I try to give back by offering my own knowledge and support—I have given keynote speeches and taught workshops for groups such as the Colorado Fiction Writers, Oklahoma Writers Federation, the University of South Carolina at Beaufort, RWA National, MWA's Sleuthfest, Lowcountry RWA's Master Class, Left Coast Crime, and PennWriters, among others.
Vivian: What advice would you have for a new author?
CJ: Follow the immortal words of Tim Allen (or Winston Churchill—always get the two confused, lol!): Never surrender, never give up.
I'm convinced that the three key ingredients to becoming a successful author are Vision (know what you write), Passion (know why you write), and Commitment (know who you're writing it for). If you have these three, you can make magic happen!
But always remember, you make your own road to travel—it's no good looking over your shoulder at how someone else is doing it.
And of course: don't forget to have fun along the way!
Thank you, CJ, for visiting with us.
About CJ: As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge suspense novels. Her debut, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), became a national bestseller and Publishers Weekly proclaimed it a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller." The second in the series, WARNING SIGNS, is due out January, 2009. Contact her at http://www.cjlyons.net
Lifelines by CJ Lyons Berkley/Jove March 2008 ISBN: 978-0-425-22082-5
Warning Signs by CJ Lyons Jove, Feb 2009, $7.99 ISBN: 9780515145830